Teaching and the Trichotomy of Control

Epictetus said;

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.

There are things we can control, such as our opinions and desires and choices. There are things we cannot control, among which Epictetus includes our bodies and our reputations. Some more obvious examples would be time, the weather, gas prices, or cats. Basically anything except our own mind.

Will Irvine expands on this dichotomy by splitting the category of things that are not up to us into two; things over which we have no control, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

When it comes to our students’ learning we have very little control.

Stoic philosophers often used the metaphor of an archer to describe our attachment to external outcomes. An archer’s job is to line up the shot to the best of their ability. Of course they would like to hit their target, but they also have no control over the wind and many other variables that will effect the arrow’s flight. So, having shot their best, a Stoic archer is satisfied even if they do not hit their mark.

Like the archer, as teachers all we can do is perform our duties well and then hope for fortune’s favor.

It has been difficult for me to work in a profession where there is so little actual control over the results, especially when accountability measures want to judge teachers by something as probabilistic as their students’ standardized test scores. Try to extend the metaphor of the archer to a teacher and her students’ test scores. Much like the flight of an arrow, despite how well prepared the student is leading up to the test, how well that teacher lines up the shot, the teacher has no control over the other variables that can effect the student’s performance in that particular moment. Did the student eat breakfast that morning? Were the police called to their house the night before? Does the student care to do well on this test, today? And let’s not forget that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to line up over a dozen shots all at the same time!

It’s frustrating to think that we can only lead students toward learning, as a horse to water, and only hope that eventually, fortunately, they will drink. It’s also strangely liberating. If I choose and act rightly, I have done my duty as a teacher, regardless of any external outcomes. But as we can see this is at odds with current accountability measures, which assume that the classroom teacher has nearly complete control, and that would judge us by our students’ single performance on a standardized test.

Would we honestly accept the idea that any teacher, having inordinate control over their students’ learning, would nevertheless allow them to underachieve?

A perfect accountability system would somehow weigh the rationality of the thousands of choices a teacher makes because this is the sole element of education that is completely within their control.

And likewise I believe the best measure of the effectiveness of an education system is not the results of standardized tests of achievement but the quality of the choices its students make. If we changed our focus, we might even find that one follows from the other. Although we have no control over our students, I am suggesting that we can measure our impact by the amount of control students leave schools with over their selves.

What did Greg Graffin say? Oh right. “We have no controooooooooooooooooool“. Stay virtuous everybody!

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